What were you doing when you were 19? I was drinking my way through university (I went to school in Australia where the legal drinking age is 18), but Maria Rose Belding is changing the world in a very #BUILTBYGIRLS kind of way. Maria is a L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree. The award recognizes "strength, perseverance and determination" and honors women who "through courage, have become beacons of change in their communities." Maria is responsible for creating the database MEANS (Matching Excess and Need for Stability), which allows food pantries and soup kitchens to swiftly and easily exchange excess food items, a development obviously worthy of celebration.
Maria, a pre-med student at American University, created MEANS as an easy, accessible way for local food donors to get their donations efficiently to those in need. The database aims to put food that would otherwise go to waste in the hands of the hungry or homeless, in as little as 60 minutes. Maria's database has grown to encompass 50 cities in 12 states in the two years since its inception, with over 1,600 partner agencies. Maria is now receiving $10,000 for her charity as a L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree, and could possibly win $25,000 for her cause if she's selected as the National Honoree.
You can vote for Maria to be awarded the National Honoree prize before Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, on WomenofWorth.com, and on L'Oréal Paris' Facebook and Twitter pages. Meanwhile, we spoke to Maria about MEANS, initiating her dream, the challenges she's faced, and what it's like to be such an accomplished young woman...
1. What gave you the idea for the MEANS Database?
I had the idea for MEANS as a high school freshman. I was volunteering in the food pantry in my church, and I ended up being the person who threw away a lot of the excess food. It wasn't like our food pantry director didn't care about how much we were putting in the dumpster - she was doing everything anyone could have asked her to do to try to get it out to our clients or other food pantries, including at one point taking an oversize donation with her family on a road trip vacation from Iowa, dropping it off in a high-need community in Michigan. I knew we had to do better than that, so I decided to build a system that would make it easier for us to talk to food pantries in our neighboring towns.
2. How did you get started on your goal?
I spent much of high school researching emergency feeding systems like food pantries and soup kitchens, trying to discover exactly where the need was and how I could address it. I had the background in hunger research and writing to develop the concept and its details, but I could not for the life of me build the website we needed to make MEANS work. Right after graduation, I met Grant Nelson, our co-founder, and he was able to craft the part of MEANS I couldn't - he's a coder and data scientist, and he built the website from scratch.
3. What challenges have you faced?
Trying to start MEANS while also starting college was challenging. Balancing class and work didn't get easier as I got into sophomore year; I just got a little better at handling it all. MEANS has absolutely exploded in the past month, and it's been a great lesson in work-life balance, priorities and how important it is to get good sleep. L'Oréal Paris announced us as one of their 2015 Women of Worth honorees on November 2, and it's been wonderful chaos since – Karlie Kloss and Arianna Huffington called me their #WomenCrushWednesday and my phone literally shut down from all the notifications!
4. What advice do you have for other young women looking to make their dreams a reality?
The best leaders know when and how to bring people smarter or more skilled than them into the team to tackle the problem with the best of everyone's talent. No one achieves anything alone; everybody owes somebody for certain parts of their story. Be on the lookout for chances to be that somebody for another girl or young woman, and seek out people who can influence you and your story in positive ways. Be a Leslie Knope. Work hard, laugh often, drink coffee, build a team you love and respect. Don't ever apologize for being who you are but do say you're sorry, and mean it, when you've made a mistake. And, if your dream involves making an impact on your community, apply for the L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth Award!
5. What are your biggest goals for the future?
Until November 20, it's to get enough votes to be recognized as the L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth National Honoree – I would receive an additional $25,000 towards MEANS! It would be so helpful for us to fulfill our mission. After that, MEANS is only growing from here, so one of my biggest goals is to double the amount of food we moved in 2015 for 2016. I'd like to develop a strong volunteer corps of young people to help food pantries physically move food; I'd like to bring on full-time professional staff...the goal list is really long. I'm only 20, so I have some time to figure it out. For now, there are 48 million people in the United States struggling with hunger. My life will sort itself out. Until then, we've got work to do.